Overcoming learning disabilities to achieve leadership potential

23 March 2020
7 minute
Older lady tries to concentrate at her desk

By Heather Stewart, Sage Transitions

Can you identify leadership potential, using HPTI, for someone with learning disabilities?

Heather Stewart, owner of Sage Transitions, a leadership consultancy, worked with Jenny E, a leadership candidate at a major forestry products manufacturing employer.

Jenny was a high potential leadership candidate who had also been diagnosed with dyslexia and a reading comprehension learning disability. The employer employed thousands of people in North America and used a Thomas International workplace personality assessment, the High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI), because it aligned with their priorities around focusing on leadership career development and succession planning.

The HPTI measures six key leadership traits:

  • Conscientiousness
  • Adjustment
  • Curiosity
  • Risk Approach
  • Ambiguity Acceptance
  • Competitiveness

Jenny’s disability meant that it took her around four times longer than other candidates to complete the HPTI in order to ensure her responses were accurate. The below visual shows her results on each trait. Her conscientiousness is recorded as optimal, as she is on the border of moderate and optimal.

Low Moderate Optimal Excessive
Conscientiousness Adjustment Curiosity Risk Approach Ambiguity Acceptance Competitiveness
Jenny E 59 47 64 43 49 62

So how did Jenny and the employer benefit from reviewing and analyzing her HPTI results? Jenny confirmed that she found the HPTI results accurate. They provided her with enhanced self-awareness and a better understanding of her leadership potential, as well as her strengths and challenges as a leader.

It also reinforced how her personality traits could help her adapt to a leadership role and overcome some of the challenges that come with having a learning disability. The employer was able to get a more detailed understanding of Jenny’s leadership potential, and methods to train, develop and support her to develop her leadership skills.

Jenny wears many hats at work: developing and building a dust mitigation process, booking continuing education for plant employers, and fulfilling the health and safety backup coordinator role. Her role is therefore significant, as the employer identifies safety as a key value, and the consequences of unsafe working environments can be very severe.

In the manufacturing plant, dust mitigation is a big health and safety risk. Her employer is committed to reducing dust levels and the resulting risk of fire and explosions. The goal is to increase health and safety for the people who work in the plant, reduce risks caused by dust, and ensure equipment runs longer and better with less dust. These roles require a person with strong conscientiousness and curiosity to continue to learn and adapt processes, systems and training.

Jenny was identified as having leadership potential through a comprehensive process using HPTI and several other measures of potential. Her HPTI results and conversations with Heather demonstrated her potential to lead. She was conscientiousness, curious and wanted her team and the employer to succeed. She was engaging, articulate and self-aware, and these characteristics were apparent throughout the HPTI discussions.

She confirmed that she needed to spend extra time to understand and respond to the assessment. She relied on her conscientiousness throughout the completion of the assessment to get everything absolutely right. She was able to overcome her learning disabilities and use available resources to complete the assessment and confirm her HPTI results, with optimal range scores for conscientiousness and curiosity, and excessive competitiveness.

Jenny confirmed the accuracy of the HPTI report of her results. During her debrief, she identified some areas where her employer’s training, development and coaching were supporting her to enhance her leadership competence.


Jenny is well-organised and motivated by success. This trait was instrumental in her completion and accuracy of the HPTI. She wants to be efficient in her work and is aware of the importance of her role in ensuring the health and safety of other employees.

Jenny said that she relies on her conscientiousness and curiosity to help find ways to address her learning disability:

“I’ve been teaching myself better reading comprehension by buying a book, then purchasing the audio book too. In this way, if I got stuck on a word while I was reading, I could listen to the word on the audio book and then go back to reading on my own. Before doing this. it would take me at least 6 months or more to read a book. Mostly because I wasn’t comprehending it, or I was discouraged due to how long it took. In February, I read a book within a month and without an audio book in the background.”


Jenny may experience some stress but is able to confidently handle most challenges. She is also positive about the good work that others do. She confirmed that she has received a lot of support from her supervisor and colleagues.

She stated that she has built strong relationships in and outside the plant, and this has allowed her to ask for and receive information and support from others, a valuable leadership characteristic in learning to manage any stresses that may arise. She also confirmed that a certain degree of stress is reasonable and responsible in her line of work, because the consequences of being careless are severe.


Jenny enjoys learning and is very interested in new ideas and methods. She likes to consider the pros and cons of ideas prior to implementation. She openly shares information and asks others for their ideas and opinions.

In her Safety Advisor and Dust Mitigation roles, Jenny said she reached out to Safety Advisors in other locations to build strong relationships and enhance her confidence in and performance on the job. She seeks out information and establishes networks of colleagues who support each other in sharing their knowledge and skills.

Risk Approach

Jenny said that she is comfortable taking calculated risks, but not confident in having difficult conversations or managing interpersonal conflict. She knows her limits and may avoid situations and personal conflicts. She works hard to build relationships with those around her and finds it very challenging to confront issues with others. She seeks support from her supervisor and has had some conflict resolution training, and that has given her some information and processes to follow.

Ambiguity Acceptance

Jenny is open to hearing ideas and opinions from others, but wants to move past ambiguity and have stability and structure. She respects others’ opinions and prefers to hear what they have to say before making a decision.

Jenny relies on her conscientiousness to figure out what the problem is, assess whether a solution is needed immediately or in the longer term, and develop a plan that includes listening to others, whilst evaluating the complexity of the issue.


Jenny thrives in competitive environments and likes recognition for herself, her team and her colleagues. She seeks to recognise others for their work and achievements. She feels very appreciated at the mill, and is proud of the work she’s accomplished. Her competitiveness and conscientiousness drive her to work hard, plan well and seek recognition for both her work and that of her colleagues. She is motivated to win, but “wants the win for the mill and with the team”.


Jenny demonstrated strong leadership potential on her HPTI report and in the debriefs. Her optimal conscientiousness and curiosity results combined with excessive competitiveness are foundational in her need to fully understand her work, and in her determination to develop and implement plans to ensure that she does her job to the best of her ability.

These two results are also instrumental in motivating her to learn new skills, and to find ways to address her reading comprehension disability. Her adjustment and risk approach scores are in the low moderate range, and our conversation suggested she is interested in receiving coaching and support to grow her leadership skills in these areas.

Conscientiousness is the most important optimal trait and Jenny is near optimal on this trait. Her conscientiousness combined with optimal curiosity and competitiveness suggest that she has the potential to work hard, plan well, seek learning and strive to win for herself, her team and for her employer.

Jenny is a young woman with learning disabilities who was able to accurately complete the HTPI, and therefore demonstrate how her leadership traits confirmed her potential to lead. The leadership zones in HPTI are designed to provide a constructive approach to leadership, and to identify areas with optimal traits, and other areas where training, development and coaching will help a leadership candidate achieve their full leadership potential.